Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

By Erskine Clarke | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE SOUTH CAROLINA low country has long been regarded--not only in popular imagination and paperback novels but also by respected scholars-- as a region dominated by what earlier historians called "a Cavalier spirit" and by what later historians have simply described as "a whole-hearted devotion to amusement and the neglect of religion and intellectual pursuits."1 With the elegant little city of Charleston at its center and with a hinterland of rice and cotton plantations--later, fashionable resorts--the Carolina low country has seemed to observers to be an intriguing region, a kind of counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of New York, to the seriousness of Philadelphia or Boston, or, with the rise of the New South, to Atlanta or Houston. Here beside dark flowing rivers and among great moss-laden oaks, down cobblestone streets and in the private gardens of handsome city houses, a way of life and a world view are said to have been nurtured that stand in contrast to dominant themes in the nation's history. Some have seen leisure in the low country and not restless energy, cultivated manners and not brash obtrusiveness, a "prebourgeois mentality" and not a business ethos. Extravagance and not frugality has been regarded as at the heart of this culture, while paternalism, racism, and hierarchical structures have been seen to rule the region, resisting the democratic impulses and business practices of the modern world.2

Such "Cavalier" images, of course, have been applied to the whites of the low country, but they also have had their parallel in images of low country African Americans who could sing "summertime and the living is easy" and "I got plenty o' nuttin' an' nuttin's plenty fo' me."3 Low country African Americans, especially those with a Gullah dialect, have been regarded as culturally distinct and--depending on the perspective of the writer--needing to be made over in the image of "white America" or to be encouraged to retain their interesting "folk ways."4

Whatever ideological purposes may have been served by such images of the low country, the images themselves have been powerful interpreters of the region because they have had some foundation in social and cultural realities. This study asserts, however, that these images are significantly flawed and misleading because they are too monolithic, because they ignore powerful elements in low country society that stand in contrast to the "Cavalier" myth and its parallels for the African Americans of the region. Put most simply, it is a thesis of this study that there has been a strong Calvinist community in the Carolina low country since its establishment as a British colony and that this community

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